The mere words “Coney Island” are enough to bring to mind visions of a whimsical turn of the century amusement park along the crashing waves of the sea. Even if you’ve never been to Coney Island, you have an idea of what it’s like. But warm weather isn’t a requirement for visiting. There is a special ghostly charm to Coney Island in the winter during the off-season. And there’s no shortage of fun things to do in Coney Island in winter, from a stroll on the boardwalk to a lazy lunch for an enjoyable day out during those coldest months of the year.
Get to Know Coney Island
Coney Island is on the southwestern tip of Brooklyn. That’s right, Coney Island is in New York City. The spot has been inhabited for several hundred years but it became a resort area in the mid-19th century. A few decades later, Coney Island became the largest amusement park spot in the country. Today, some of those original amusement parks and their rides still exist!
An interesting side note is that Coney Island is not, in fact, an island. Although it originally was an island, today it is a peninsula following the shore being filled in during the beginning of the 20th century.
Coney Island in the Winter Off Season
During the peak summer months, visitors pack the beaches and amusement park rides along the Coney Island boardwalk. But during Coney Island’s winter off-season — from about October to May — the traffic on the wide boardwalk is mostly locals out for exercise or catching up with friends while getting some fresh air. New York City law bans swimming without a lifeguard but even with a grey sky or a frosty wind, you can’t help but be taken in by the romance of the waves crashing on the beach.
Things to Do in Coney Island
The famous Coney Island amusement park rides stand still and silent during the winter. But there are so few people on the boardwalk and the beach that it’s easy to imagine you have it all to yourself. Even when visiting in winter, there are plenty of fun things to do in Coney Island.
Pat Auletta Steeplechase Pier
Jutting some 1000 feet out into the Coney Island Channel is the Pat Auletta Steeplechase Pier. No visit to Coney Island is complete without a stroll out onto the pier. Benches line the entire length of the pier which was rebuilt and reopened in 2013 after Hurricane Sandy destroyed much of the region.
The pier is a popular spot for fishing, in addition to lovely views of the waterfront. There are spectacular views back onto the Coney Island beach, boardwalk, and waterfront area. The amusement park rides make the scene that much more classic and fun. The view is just like a picture postcard. Down at the end of the pier are wooden loungers where you can sit and relax for a while, although you may need to bundle up!
Coney Island Riegelmann Boardwalk
The Coney Island Boardwalk is the heart of Coney Island. The wide wooden boardwalk runs along the beach with shops just opposite. Officially, it is the Riegelmann Boardwalk and dates to 1923. The boardwalk runs almost three miles and ends, in the east, at Brighton Beach. There are plenty of benches along the boardwalk, allowing you to sit and watch the waves roll onto the beach.
No matter the time of year, the boardwalk is one of the most popular things to do in Coney Island. It’s a great way to enjoy the beach and the ocean while getting some exercise, too.
Coney Island Beach
There’s nothing better than a day at the beach. Although swimming is not allowed during the off-season when no lifeguards are on duty, the Coney Island Beach is still open for walks or a quiet spot to reflect. Bring a blanket and find a spot on the largely wide-open sand and relax. Or, perhaps you would prefer to go for a walk. There’s always a chance you might find a seashell or the remnants of one along the beach. In any case, you’ll have the seagulls to keep you company.
During the hot and humid summer months, amusement park rides with names like Thunderbolt and The Cyclone attempt thrillseekers. Some of the rides are considered historic, landmarks not only of New York City but also recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. The Wonder Wheel Ferris wheel dates to 1920 while the Cyclone roller coaster from 1927 is one of the country’s oldest wooden coasters still running.
Luna Park and Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park are Coney Island’s two resident amusement parks. The theme parks are as historic as some of their rides. But from, roughly, October through March, the rides stay silent. Visitors to Coney Island can walk the boardwalk and gaze through the fences and gates at the rides as they sit stationary. Even without the rush of adrenaline and the whoosh of the rides, there is a special fascination. You can study the whimsical signs, the colorful lights, the carefully engineered construction.
Coney Art Walls
Pop art and street art collide at Coney Art Walls, an open-air museum of street art. Sitting just off the boardwalk, Coney Art Walls is several dozen billboard-size walls featuring works by such famous names as Ron English, Mister Cartoon, and eL Seed. The rotating curation of works is not open to the public during the fall and winter. After September, Coney Art Walls close for the season. Technically, this isn’t on the list of things to do in Coney Island in winter. But you can still catch a glimpse of some of these bold, engaging works over and through the fence.
In 1916, Nathan Handwerker opened a hot dog stand on Coney Island. Today, Nathan’s Famous sells all manner of fast food items. Across the country, Nathan’s Famous is known as much for its hot dogs as for its annual hot dog eating contest on the 4th of July.
On the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues, just a block or so off the boardwalk and beach, sits the original Nathan’s stand. Fun neon lights and old school billboards cover the exterior of the shop.
On one sign, a personified hot dog wearing a chef’s hat and apron, tries to entice you to take one of his friends home with you. Inside, Nathan’s Famous is large and open with a few tables over to the side of the store. No doubt, the space is full of hungry patrons during the peak summer season.
But during a visit to Coney Island in winter? The shop is busy but there is no crowd. Outside, round picnic tables dot a space beneath another billboard (this one of an American flag emblazoned with a larger than life hot dog) between Nathan’s and another shop whose window is full of delectable looking sweet treats, such as candy apples.
Nathan’s Famous sells hot dogs, hamburgers, and frog legs, as well as some seafood. But who are we kidding? You go to the original Nathan’s at Coney Island for the hot dog. And it is not a disappointment! Lunch at Nathan’s should definitely be on your list of things to do in Coney Island.
New York Aquarium
Since 1957, the New York Aquarium has called Coney Island home. But its history goes much farther back. The New York Aquarium was founded in 1896 and is the oldest continually operating aquarium in the country. The 14-acre site has nearly 300 different species on display, including seals, sea otters, sea lions, and a variety of sharks. The best part might just be that the New York Aquarium is open every day, even on holidays!
Coney Island Museum
If you’re looking to learn and experience more about Coney Island, head to the Coney Island Museum. During the off-season, the museum is open on Saturdays and Sundays. Among the museum’s permanent collection are items like funhouse mirrors, historic postcards, and more. At the museum, you get a taste of the Coney Island of yesteryear and today.
Tips for Visiting Coney Island in Winter
With the exception of a day with particularly nice and unseasonable weather, Coney Island in winter is relatively empty. Most of the shops are closed up but there’s plenty to enjoy.
There are several restrooms along the boardwalk. Most you’ll find closed for the season. But the restroom across from the Coney Island Boardwalk Garden should be open.
If you’re looking to experience dog-friendly Coney Island, you’re in luck. During the winter off-season, dogs are allowed on both the boardwalk and the beach. Bring your favorite furry friend for a day out. Together you can enjoy most of the things to do in Coney Island.
New York City law prohibits swimming without a lifeguard present. So stick to the beach and boardwalk during your visit. Be sure to check and follow the posted rules.
Getting to Coney Island
Coney Island is on the southwestern tip of Brooklyn. It sits just off the Belt Parkway, which can be reached by car by the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in the west via Staten Island. From the north, I-278 or Ocean Parkway and Route 27 will get you there.
Parking at Coney Island
Parking at Coney Island in winter is rather easy thanks to fewer visitors. There is street parking along the roads that dead-end into the boardwalk, such as W. 15th Street, Stillwell Avenue, W. 12th Street, and W. 10th Street. You can also find parking on the more main streets that run parallel to the boardwalk and beach. Depending on the exact time of the year you visit, the parking meters may or may not be active.
There’s also a large parking lot with paid spots next to the MCU Park, where minor league baseball team the Brooklyn Cyclones play. During my February visit, the Coney Island parking lot, as it is called, was being used as part of an active construction site but spots were still available; however, there was no charge to park.
Since Coney Island’s in NYC, you can also reach it using New York City’s public transit system, MTA. The Coney Island Stillwell Avenue Subway Station is the closest to the action and serves the D, F, N, and Q lines. There are also a number of bus stops along Surf Avenue, just a couple blocks back from the beach.
Need another way to get there? In 2021, NYC Ferry will be launching a route connecting Coney Island to Wall Street/Pier 11.
All opinions, as well as all photos, are my own.